CHAMPAIGN — One of the best things about sports in general and football in particular: You can never say never.
When Boston College got itself in an impossible situation against Miami back in 1984, Doug Flutie found a way.
When Colorado needed a miracle to knock off Michigan in 1994, Kordell Stewart and Michael Westbrook came up with one.
When Cal trailed John Elway and Stanford with seconds left in 1982, we saw the greatest kick return in football history. “The band is out on the field ...”
Just when you think you have seen it all, you realize, of course, that you haven’t.
So, the short answer to the question: Can Illinois upset Wisconsin when the two teams kick off at 11 a.m. on Saturday at Memorial Stadium? Yes.
But the odds are long. Super-duper long. Winning the Lotto long.
Lovie Smith’s fourth team enters as a 31-point underdog. In the last 44 years, visitors to Memorial Stadium have been favored by more just twice.
Top-ranked Ohio State was a 36-point favorite in 1998 and won 41-0. The Buckeyes, then ranked third in 2013, was a 34-point choice that year and won 60-35.
This is the 16th time since 1976 the Illini have been 20-plus point underdogs at home. In seven of those games, Illinois covered the spread. Most recently in 2017, when Smith’s team lost 24-10 to 26-point favorite Wisconsin.
The closest the Illini came to a “shock the world” upset in Champaign was in 2006, when Ron Zook’s team lost 17-10 against then-No. 1 Ohio State. The Buckeyes were favored by 24.
Zook and his players have often said that game set up their run to the 2008 Rose Bowl. The 2007 the Illini finished the job in Columbus, beating No. 1 Ohio State 28-21. More proof that anything can happen.
At his Monday press conference, Smith talked about his team’s non-favorite status.
“Are we underdogs this week?” Smith asked rhetorically. “It is up to us. We understand. It’s a good football team coming in, but we’ve played good football teams. We can live with the results if we play our best football.”
Smith figures to remind his team about its underdog status.
“Football 101, you use that,” Smith said. “You use everything that you can.
“I’m sure up there (at Wisconsin), they’re saying, ‘Hey, they think we’re going to overlook them. We can’t.’ You use every bit of advantage that you feel like you have to get the team motivated.”
Wisconsin has dominated the series the last decade, winning nine in a row. The last Illinois victory happened in 2007 when the Illini stunned the No. 5 Badgers 31-26 at Memorial Stadium. Illinois was a two-point favorite.
“This week, you don’t need a whole lot (to get motivated),” Smith said. “They’re ranked, right?”
Yes, the Badgers are No. 6 in the latest Associated Press poll. In 2018, I had them No. 1 in the preseason. A year too soon. This year, Wisconsin was unranked on my preseason ballot. Fool me once.
After Wisconsin’s 49-0 romp at South Florida in the opener, I moved them in at No. 23. The Badgers have since made a steady climb on my ballot, entering the Top 10 after a blowout win against Michigan in the third game.
“That right there is enough motivation,” Smith said. “That’s saying what kind of football team you are. Undefeated. You look at the stats. They are a lot of things to get you motivated if you need that.”
To produce a, “What’s going on in Champaign?” reaction in the positive variety across the country, the Illini need a near-perfect performance.
Play like it did during a 13-minute stretch in the second half against Michigan. The Illini outscored the Wolverines 17-0. Multiply by four quarters.
“We’re trying to really ball up what we did during that period of time,” Smith said. “That’s the team we can be. If we show up like that the second half of the football season, we’re going to be celebrating a lot of victories.”
Wisconsin dominated the first half of the season, pitching four shutouts and beating opponents by an average of 37.7 points.
The Badgers control the clock better than anyone, keeping the ball 37 minutes per game. That means 23 minutes for the other guys. Better score fast.
Jim Leonhard’s defense is a pain for the opponents. So far, it has produced 23 sacks and 14 turnovers. It is giving up a nation’s-best 174 yards, 60 yards better than No. 2 Ohio State.
Remember, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Wisconsin defense. Not so much. Leonhard is setting himself up to be a head coach. Very soon.
The Badgers will likely face Illini quarterback Brandon Peters, who is expected back in the lineup after missing the Michigan game after suffering a concussion on Oct. 5 at Minnesota. Peters is the best passer on the Illinois roster, which might not matter against the best pass defense in the country.
A tiny chance the Badgers will look ahead to their showdown on Oct. 26 at No. 4 Ohio State. Doubt it, but again, I’ll leave one final thought before all the college football kicks off on what should be a picturesque homecoming day in Champaign.
You can never say never.
According to Vegas oddsmakers, Wisconsin is a 31-point favorite against Illinois at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. With the help of college football guru Phil Steele, here are the longest home odds the Illini have faced since 1976:
YEAR OPPONENT POINT SPREAD FINAL
1977 Ohio State+23 Ohio State, 35-0
1979 Ohio State+20 Ohio State, 44-7
1986 Nebraska+20 Nebraska, 59-14
1996 Ohio State+29 Ohio State, 48-0
1997 Penn State+26 Penn State, 41-6
1997 Michigan State+24 Michigan State, 27-17
1998 Ohio State+36 Ohio State, 41-0
1998 Wisconsin+21 Wisconsin, 37-3
2004 Purdue+21 Purdue, 38-30
2005 Wisconsin+21 Wisconsin, 41-24
2006 Iowa+21 Iowa, 24-7
2006 Ohio State+24 Ohio State, 17-10
2013 Ohio State+34 Ohio State, 60-35
2017 Wisconsin+26 Wisconsin, 24-10
2018 Penn State+28 Penn State, 63-24
2019 Wisconsin +31 TBD
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at email@example.com.